Sunday, July 01, 2007

Earthrise - Apollo 8

See here for the famous photo and some commentary about it.

At the time, I was a 25-year-old kid working as an aerospace engineer at NASA/Houston - the Manned Spacecraft Center, later renamed the Johnson Space Center. The rumor was that the Roooooshians were planning some kind of lunar mission to steal our thunder, so we had to get there fustest with the mostest. So a special mission was crafted from existing hardware and lunar-landing plans. It would only be a pass around the moon, but it would establish the primacy of the U.S.A. over the dastardly U.S.S.R. USA! Number One! Number One! But it wasn't supposed to look quite that smug. The mission, to be called Apollo 8, was announced suddenly, because of them Roooooshians, and I remember spending days doing computer runs analyzing navigation. 24-hour days. Literally. We all stumbled around like zombies looking at printouts of numbers that had ceased to have any meaning. That's paper, right? With numbers? Can I go home now? No!

I had a deep sense of foreboding. This isn't going to work. They're not going to be picked up by the Navy when they splash down.

As history shows, the mission worked very well. The astronauts read Biblical verses from space, reminding everyone that it was Christmas and we had triumphed over Godless atheistic Communism, which drove me, an atheist, crazy with anger and a sense of betrayal. This shit was not what I had worked for! This was not what I dreamed about as a space-crazy kid! LBJ said something; I can't remember what. The Rooooshians sulked, and it turned out they hadn't had a mission ready after all.

Later, this wonderful picture showed up, and none of the above mattered. What mattered to me was that the space-crazy kid had played a part in getting Man to the Moon.

Later still, NASA printed up a gazillion fancy prints of this picture to give out to members of Congress and others, only to realize too late that they had all been printed in reverse, in mirror image. Oops! Your tax dollars at work! So they handed out the reverse prints to us, the engineers, the guys who had made it all possible. Give it to those guys. They'll accept anything!

Despite the mirror-imageness, Leonore and I loved it. We had it professionally framed, and now it hangs over the couch in the living room of our house in Denver. I still stare at it in amazement and delight. No matter what else happens in my life, I'll always be able to say that I was part of that great anonymous army: I helped send Man to the Moon.

(I also worked on Apollo 12 and Apollo 15. Apollo 13 is the fault of other people entirely.)

Meaningless postscript: One day at NASA, I passed Wernher von Braun. He was visiting from his home base in Huntsville, Alabama. Houston was hostile territory because of the bureaucratic battles between his base and MSC. He was a tall, smug, fleshy-faced fellow surrounded by a clique of pandering pukeheads. His autobiography was title I Aimed for the Stars. The comedian Mort Sahl said that it should have been subtitled "but Sometimes I Hit London." When he was shooting off his V2s, I was a baby in England at the receiving end. I wish that when I passed him I had jumped up and down and sung, "You missed me! You missed me!" But I probably would have been fired.


Chris said...

What a story! As a science geek, I'm not sure how to express my jealousy and wonder that you got to be a part of that. And as history shows, the verses, the Cold War posturing, all of it, just fades away. It wasn't just America's triumph; it was something the whole world can point to and say "look what we're capable of!"

David said...

I'll always be happy that I was a part of it. And I agree that the verses and the competition have faded away, and what we're left with is that wonderful photograph.

Post postscript: A familiar photo from Apollo 11 is the astronauts on the Moon with the U.S. flag. The effect of that is still negative for much of the world. At the time, though, I was told that we were going to plant the UN flag on the Moon to demonstrate that the US was not claiming territory and that the mission represented the whole Earth. "A giant leap for mankind." However, Congress got word of that plan and threatened NASA with a 100% budget cut (!) if any flag but the US one was planted there. So, sadly, we don't have a picture of an astronaut with the UN flag on the Moon.

Chris said...

Gotta love Congress for that one. "You're either with us, or you're with the Commie Moon-men!"

Travis Erwin said...

cool story